Betting the Pharmacy

Rx gains in the race against drugs in sports

If anything could cast a pall on the singularly captivating story of the year—baseball's home run race—it would be that one of the participants needed the help of androstenedione, a performance-enhancing supplement. The substance, for those who missed the nanostir created this August when Mark McGwire admitted taking it, is a "precursor" to testosterone and as such banned by the International Olympic Committee, which categorizes it an anabolic androgenic steroid. "Andro" is also banned by the NCAA and NFL, though not by Major League Baseball.

In point of fact, McGwire's use of the product probably just added a few feet onto his tape measure home run average and the week or so the story dominated the sports pages is notable only by its brevity and the eventual media consensus that, since andro's not against MLB rules, McGwire didn't really do anything wrong, though kids shouldn't follow the slugger's lead in this particular instance. That the only fallout from the event appears to be last week's proposal by two New Jersey Assemblymen to ban the sale of andro to minors and an IOC plan to lobby MLB to "harmonize" drug policies marks the latest trend in the tawdry world of pharmacologically performance-enhanced sports: weary acceptance tilting towards capitulation.

Just ask Ben Johnson, the most disgraced performance-drug user in sport history, whose application for reinstatement to the International Amateur Athletics Federation was just denied by an Ontario appeals court. Though Johnson had been banned from competition for twice failing drug tests and his 1988 100-meter sprint gold medal revoked, he told a Toronto paper before the decision that he didn't think he was any different from Mark McGwire.

And it looks like he's correctly reading the handwriting on the wall. IOC chair Juan Antonio Samaranch's response? "Doping now is everything that, first, is harmful to an athlete's health, and second, artificially augments his performance. If it's just the second case," he told El Mundo, "for me, that's not doping," adding his belief that "the actual list of banned substances must be reduced drastically."

The sense of futility in the battle for the biochemical integrity of sport has been building—"I am spending my life following the pee-pee," sighed IAAF president Primo Nebioli just last year—and fulminates after a particularly sordid summer. 1998 saw Ireland's triple gold medal swimmer Michelle Smith deBruin suspended for four years after allegedly tampering with the urine sample in her drug test. ("Who says doping is unethical?" asked her husband Erik, a Dutch discus thrower with a four-year drug suspension of his own. "Sports is by definition dishonest.") A Chinese swimmer was intercepted heading to the World Championships in Perth, Australia, with 13 vials of human growth hormone, while four others were nabbed for using a banned diuretic drug. The IAAF handed down drug suspensions to sprinter Dennis Mitchell, who's also president of USA Track and Field's Athletes Advisory Board, and 1996 Olympic shot put champ Randy Barnes. And, perhaps most spectacularly, the Tour de France was nearly aborted when French police found vast quantities of the booster epoetin in the top-level team Festina's car. (EPO, Dutch medical expert Johannes Marx told The Irish Independent, "is a very good and safe medicine… I'm not sure that it should be a forbidden drug.")

"Let them use whatever they want," said a respected veteran of the track press corps in frustration recently. "They're all physiological freaks at the 99.9 percent level anyway. Who really cares if they use drugs to sort it out amongst themselves?"

Well, Carl Lewis cared. He had to stand in the silver medal position below Ben Johnson in Seoul, knowing he really deserved the top spot Johnson stole with steroids. The injustice was belatedly corrected by Johnson's DQ. Shirley Babashoff surely cared. She was expected to harvest a handful of swimming golds at the 1976 Olympics, but got silvers behind East Germans in the 200, 400, and 800-meter freestyles. She could have expected Janet Evans­sized celebrity and opportunities. Today, how many folks have even heard of Shirley Babashoff? Frank Shorter's triumph in the marathon at the 1972 Olympics—the first by an American in 64 years—sparked the running boom. Though picked to repeat in 1976 and join his idol, Abebe Bikila, as the only marathoners to win two golds, he was passed in the latter stages by an unknown East German, Waldemar Cierpinski.

It is in the former East Germany, incidentally, where the truly freakish athletes are today being revealed. Using files from the now defunct secret police, Stasi, unified Germany is prosecuting East Germany's notorious sports system of the '70s and '80s in a Berlin court. What has emerged are true horror stories of athletes, often beginning as unwitting minors, receiving drugs dissolved in tea or disguised as "vitamin shots." One swimmer now has apelike hair growing down her back and hamstrings. The 1986 European women's shot put champion, Heidi Kreiger, had a sex change and is now a man, Andreas—a change Kreiger now attributes to the steroids administered by East German coaches. Gruesome sagas of ovaries so swollen they have to be removed are commonplace.

Samaranch aside, not everyone is willing to concede that drugs and sports must be inevitably interwoven. The marathoner Shorter advocates "pre-and post-event blood testing," and the silver medalist speed skater in Nagano, Chris Witty, has said she would forego her USOC stipend and "would rather have a better drug-testing program." And the Romanian Olympic Committee now swears to dole out lifetime bans to any athlete found using illicit substances. And any impetus to soften the stand against performance-enhancing drugs is bound to be undercut by the death at 38 of Florence Griffith Joyner, of an apparent heart seizure. Though she'd never failed a test and denied any allegations of illicit drug use, her notable muscular transformation by the 1988 Seoul Olympics made her the target of widespread accusations, which she denied. Flo-Jo's retirement shortly after the Games, however, only increased suspicions that her remarkable sprint records were ill gotten.

Still, at the same time IOC vice president Anita DeFrantz cites the Olympic athlete's oath of integrity, Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates was forced to defend his anti-drug proposal that any athletes found trafficking in large amounts of drugs be jailed and that criminal charges be brought against athletes found using doping substances. At the same Seoul conference where IOC officials chided MLB for not banning andro, they also warned Australia against taking a hard-line stance on performance drugs, even though, already, the 2000 Sydney Olympics are being forecast as the most drug-driven of all time. The taint could jeopardize corporate sponsorship, and there's even mumbling about removing the dirtiest sports, like cycling, from the Games, further entrenching the growing anomie.

The International Drug Summit is scheduled for January in Lausanne, but, as it stands, only the most egregious offenders are getting caught. Ben Johnson told the Toronto Globe and Mail that 80 percent of the top track athletes use substances to boost performances. "There will always be someone out there doing something," he says, "and it will be going on and on and on and on." And on.

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